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HPD’s good, bad, and ugly

The good news is that the testing of backlogged rape kits has led to the identification of a serial rapist in Houston.

Houston police on Tuesday for the first time identified a criminal suspect – a possible serial rapist – from testing of sexual assault kits that once gathered dust in the police property room.

HPD sex crime investigators said Herman Ray Whitfield Jr., 43, has been charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault going back to 1992, and said he may have had more victims.One of his victims, police said, was a 12-year-old.

The identity comes one year after two independent labs began processing about 10,000 cases, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, that were stored in the HPD property room. The city turned to an outside lab after DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended when an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work.

In February, Houston Police Department brass said partial results of a DNA testing had not resulted in any false arrests. And while HPD confirmed the testing had led to a number of arrests, they would not reveal the exact number or identify any suspects.

“I don’t think it’s surprising. You have thousands of untested rape kits, and when you start testing them you’re going to start making connections,” said Mark Bennett, a veteran Houston criminal defense attorney.

“If there are rape victims who wouldn’t have been raped if the authorities had done their jobs properly, we should all be outraged by that.”

[...]

Whitfield was sentenced in 1994 to 30 years in prison for kidnapping and served 12 years before being paroled in 2006, [Sgt. John] Colburn said.

He confirmed the evidence in the sexual assault cases was developed by DNA testing by the independent labs.

From 2006 to 2009, Whitfield was living near Airport Boulevard and Texas 288 in the Sunnyside area but had several different addresses before being sent back to prison in 2009 on a parole violation, according to officer Holly Whillock.

At some point during his parole, Whitfield’s DNA was entered into a national database, allowing police to later link him to the four local cases, Colburn said.

His victims ranged from 12 to 30.

Three of the assaults occurred before he went to prison: Dec. 15, 1992, 4300 block of Alvin; Feb. 16, 1993, 4300 block of Alvin; and Aug. 30, 1993, 4400 block of Wilmington.

The other charge stems from an attack on June 11, 2008, in the 4300 block of Wilmington. In that case, police released a composite sketch of the attacker, based upon the victim’s description.

Grits was the first to publish about this, and he notes that there will likely be more such identifications when all is said and done. It’s great that this criminal will be held responsible for his rapes, hopefully to the tune of a life sentence, but as Mark Bennett said in the story, the fact that he wasn’t tied to those crimes before now is a tragedy and an outrage. The failures of HPD’s crime lab are well known, but there has been plenty of other bad news for HPD in recent weeks, all of which led to this blistering editorial in the Chron, in which they call for a third-party investigator to do a thorough examination of HPD’s practices.

It seems like a month can’t go by without HPD landing itself in another controversy. There were two HPD lieutenants who retired, with full benefits, amid allegations of sexual harassment. The crime lab faces an internal investigation after reports that a former employee did not follow proper procedures over the last two years. This comes on the tail of untested evidence, faked results, inaccurate fingerprinting and contaminated blood tests. We thought those days were over.

HPD has also yet to properly address a lauded two-part article by Texas Observer writer Emily DePrang documenting rampant and unpunished police brutality in Houston. Nor has HPD taken significant steps to address police shootings, even after a series of articles by Chronicle reporter James Pinkerton revealed that a quarter of civilians shot by HPD over the past five years had been unarmed.

Now we’re learning that the homicide division simply ignored stacks of cases and failed to keep track of documents. The problems go all the way to the top: City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police sergeant, kept homicide case files after leaving the force (“Council member imposes penalty on self,” Page A1, Thursday). Because of this incompetence, a man charged with murder now sits out of reach in Honduras. How many other murderers roam free because Houston’s police officers refused to do their jobs?

Neither Mayor Annise Parker nor District Attorney Devon Anderson should be satisfied with HPD’s performance. The department’s failures undermine its reliability in the courts and its trustworthiness in the hearts of citizens. All of Houston suffers when HPD falls down on the job, yet it seems like officers get off with a slap on the wrist.

See here and here for those two Observer stories by Emily DePrang; I’ve got links to the Chron stories about shootings here. I’d like to see this be an issue in the DA’s race and in next year’s Mayoral race. Frankly, given that DePrang’s stories were published last summer, it should have been an issue in the 2013 Mayor’s race. Instead of his half-baked reform ideas, Ben Hall should have been all over HPD’s discipline problems and used them to attack Mayor Parker hammer and tong. Sure, a lot of this stuff predates her, and institutional change is hard, but hey, the buck stops here. Every Mayoral wannabe next year needs to be pressed on this. It’s embarrassing, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

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2 Comments

  1. Steven Houston says:

    I read the various articles and comments contained within them so here’s the counterpoint you might have expected. Regarding the rape kits and other testing, the city has shelled out many millions of dollars for these tests to be run by independent labs but had then done so in 1992, the tests would have cost as much as ten times more. Further, there were no national (or local) DNA databases back then so suspect Whitfield would NOT have been caught back then based on that alone. He likely evaded arrest for the rapes by virtue of his being in prison, and had his full sentence been carried out, the later rape would not have occurred (keeping in mind that he has yet to face trial in any of those cases and may not be guilty). I’m sure if the city threw an endless amount of money at any particular crime, it would yield at least a few more arrests but would citizens be willing to pay more?

    In a police department I’ve heard is understaffed to the tune of at least 2000 classified officers, half that number attributed to the city laying off over a 1000 civilians while making their far more expensive classified counterparts handle the mundane administrative chores. That takes officers off the streets and out of investigative divisions for increasingly large portions of their shifts. Then, the monies needed to keep them productive, be it new patrol cars, computers, testing equipment or a host of other items such as more extensive training, have been cut back so often that they “make due” but cannot be very efficient.

    The quality of the new officers hitting the streets or signing up for their academy has dropped so much that the city recently expanded the radius of how far they can look for candidates significantly. Their latest academy class should have 75 cadets, it currently has 29 IIRC, more expected to fail before field training. Why is this happening? Every other major police department in the state and country pays better from Day 1 on through and including pensions, HPD cutting pensions way ahead of the curve 10 years ago and more recently lowering how many vacation days officers get. Yeah, I’m sure that will help get them the best and brightest.

    The Chronicle’s piss poor editorial was worse, one of the harassment lieutenants serving weeks of unpaid suspension before being allowed to retire and the other retiring in disgrace before his investigation was finished, thereby losing many benefits. Both of them were 30+ year veterans and if the victims want, they can still use the civil processes available to them to further gain justice but frankly, exactly what do any of you think HPD could have done to them? Neither of them were going to retire within the next 5 years from what I’ve been told and that amounts to a huge hit in their deferred retirement accounts, not to mention them trying to find work elsewhere, hence the disgraced Lt. Lakind suing the city to be restored.

    In the Homicide cases, almost every case was tied back to one sergeant, a man who was fired without pension benefits by the way, in cases going back over 10 years that were audited in great detail. Homicide handles a wide array of cases from simple assaults to ex crimes to murders and out of ten years, they found a couple dozen with irregularities. Some of those two dozen cases had minute problems, others were worse but without context it is difficult to know just how bad the matter is. There are cases in every department in this country that are not 100% investigated for lack of manpower, something HPD has run short of for the last 20+ years and then the department wastes much of that on trivial items.

    DePrang frets over officer shootings a lot too. Well, in each of those shootings, multiple layers of follow up investigations by their department, Harris County and other DA offices, a standing citizen review board, and in some of the more tragic cases the FBI among others, all found those shootings to be justified. I know most in the media are as good with statistics as men are with having babies but these are not random events that follow a standard curve so you just can’t make an intelligent argument regarding likelihoods in a statistical model.

    5200 officers, a hand full of screw ups where the officers are punished or kicked out by one method or another, and the hand wringers are up in arms. Again, there are legitimate problems with the department beyond just the low manpower and poor equipment/post academy training but the loudest voices complaining focus on the wrong things which allows the situation to deteriorate.

  2. Steven Houston says:

    And lest it be said I am a police department cheerleader with blinders on, I’m all for scrutiny of how money is spent, how resources are deployed, and how we collectively address problems. I just think the cries for heads fall short when those we keep electing to office are so lousy at repeatedly using a bandaid approach to virtually everything.

    And before the Parker/White/Brown/democrat haters come out in droves, those who ran against them were worse in many ways. Sanchez repeatedly ran against Brown to be mayor, his biggest experience in working was as a failed probation/parole officer with lousy civil service ratings (he couldn’t even handle his own job, never mind that of someone higher up, his tenure on City Council marked by all sorts of foolishness). Mosbacher ran against Brown and others was one of those calling to cut taxes and spending on everything. Yeah, that would work so well, amplifying already existing problems. And Hall’s ideas were just regurgitation’s of past failed plans, his desire to be mayor the only thing on his mind, the guy having obviously traded credibility when city attorney to score a pay day position with a local firm as I recall.

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